Anti-bias law ban passes House

A bill that would prevent Arkansas cities and towns from enacting anti-discrimination measures passed the Arkansas House on Friday, days after it was approved in the Senate.

The House voted 58-21 in favor of Senate Bill 202, which cleared the Senate on Monday by a 24-8 vote.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, who presented the bill Friday, said the measure is about having statewide uniformity in nondiscrmination laws and protections of different classes.

The Fayetteville City Council last August passed a measure prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identification or sexual identification, but voters repealed it months later. The Eureka Springs City Council passed a similar measure earlier this week.

Ballinger said the "reality is that stuff needs to be debated here" in the state Capitol.

"If these are concerns you have, file the bill," he said. "Let's see it. We'll debate it up here. But the reality is we need uniformity."

Opponents characterized it as discriminatory. Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, called it "morally repugnant," while Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, called it a "proactive act of discrimination."

"I don't believe that's the type of people we are," Tucker said. "I believe we are a warm, generous and welcoming people in this state."

Sabin noted Arkansas law offers no anti-discrimination protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Arkansans.

"Other groups we feel it's right to protect, whether its by race or by gender. So the question is, why not them?" Sabin said. "So what it really comes down to is impeding their freedom — the freedom to live their lives as they would like to live them."

But Rep. Donnie Copeland, R-North Little Rock, and other supporters said the measure is needed as a protection for businesses, pastors or others who for religious reasons should be able to decline to provide services to gay people.

Copeland noted that bakers and wedding planners who have generated controversy for electing not to provide services for gay marriages.

"If they could stand here today, I believe they would tell you that this is very much needed," Copeland said.

Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, concurred with Copeland, saying that a pastor "shouldn't have to form a marriage that goes against his strong convictions."

"This is the United States of America, and it's time we stand up and say enough is enough," she said.

Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, asked the chamber not to support the measure, noting that the Fayetteville ordinance passed after lengthy public testimony and was then repealed after opponents circulated a petition to call a special election and then voters rejected it.

"The system worked," he said. "The people of Fayetteville were able to in their own time and their own way decide their laws that would govern them. And it worked. Let's not do this. My constituents beg you: Let them run their own affairs."

An emergency clause with the bill did not pass, so it would not go into effect immediately if it is signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

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